Fears over climate change monitoring systems not measuring up

Jun 28 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring

Russel Moul, London

On Tuesday this week, President Obama delivered an address at Georgetown University where he outlined a comprehensive strategy for addressing climate change. His speech discussed broad range measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to promote the development of renewable energy (especially through nuclear power and controversial use of fracking), to protect the US coastline from sea-level rise and flooding, and to pursue a global climate deal. The President also announced a decision to bypass a deadlocked Congress through issuing an executive memo to the US Environmental Protection Agency, charging them with the responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. These emissions amount to a third of America’s greenhouse gas production; the move therefore constitutes a particularly significant action against climate change. The overall goal is to bring the US back on track to meet its commitments to cut carbon emissions by 17 per cent by 2015.

Tuesday’s speech came a week after the President delivered a major address in Berlin following the conclusion of the 2013 G-8 summit. Here, he emphasised the dangers posed by climate change and the potential risks of collective apathy. ‘Climate change’, he said ‘is one of the foremost challenges for our future economic growth and well-being.’
Together, these statements demonstrate the growing significance of climate change as a political issue, but will it lead to actual change? Furthermore, although Obama plans to cut carbon emissions and to seek alternative energy sources, he has not discussed the provision of funds for scientific observation systems that monitor climate change. For several years, fears have been growing among scientists concerning the future of these systems ­­— which require adequate funding for equipment and personnel. The question is, will such systems now decline in this age of budget cuts? 
Climate change measuring instruments
Understanding the state of the climate is an ever evolving challenge for scientists, engineers and policy makers alike. The conditions of the climate system are constantly changing, and with it the need to maintain an accurate monitoring system to measure both global and regional shifts over long periods of time. Moreover, because climate change is widely thought to be influenced by human activity, there is an added imperative to document what is happening, and to understand those changes by clearly delineating between human contributions and natural processes. In essence, understanding and managing climate change requires firm knowledge of where the climate has been in the past, and where it is now.
Global observation can be divided into two categories: 1) space-based observations; and 2) a variety of in situ observations made at the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere or in the ocean.
For space-based observation, satellites have — for the last 40 years — been providing some of the most useful and enlightening images and measurements of the entire Earth. These instruments are particularly useful for offsetting the otherwise uneven spatial coverage of in situ observation systems. For example, the JASON systemis said to be the most important satellite system currently operating. Positioned at a vantage point of 1336 kilometres (830 miles) above the Earth, the US/European JASON-1 and OSTM/JASON-2 ocean altimeter satellites measure the height of the ocean surface directly under the satellite with an accuracy of 4-5 centimetres. These satellites travel in excess of 7 kilometres (4 miles) every second as they trace out an orbit; the spacecraft cover the global oceans every 10 days.  However, despite their usefulness, satellites like these are not without their weaknesses. They operate in extremely hostile environments — being exposed to cosmic rays and outgassing contaminants (outgassing is the release of a gas that was dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in certain materials), they regularly require on-board remote calibration to correct their measurements. Furthermore, each satellite’s mission typically last only 5 years as the satellite’s orbit decays and drifts with time. The challenge then is firstly one of continuity – new measurements must be appropriately overlapped with old ones to ensure a smooth transition between different devices — but secondly, of cost. Satellites are not cheap.
An important in situ observing system is the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array. This network consists of 55 oceanic moorings that measure temperatures and interactions between ocean and atmosphere in the Pacific. According to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the moorings health is rapidly declining — 17 of the moorings are currently off-line and the amount of recorded data has dropped to about 50 per cent. The system has been compromised, and so its ability to plan for and adapt to natural disasters has been impaired. 
These are just two examples of the types of systems used to monitor global climate change. In an report by the Global Climate Observation System (GCOS) in 2010, the estimated cost for implementing a fully operational climate observation system would cost an additional US$2.5 billion a year on top of current global expenditure (about US$5-7 billon) for existing global observations systems. Around US$1.4 billion of this additional expenditure is needed for satellites or in situ observation of open oceans alone.  
Although significant progress has been made in the last decade for raising the profile of climate change issues, it is clear there is a long way to go. Furthermore, the need for climate information has greatly increased, but the effort to achieve it has not. Holes are now appearing within major satellite and in situ observation systems and are set to grow in the future. Consequently, we have in an information deficit that only investment in climatic observation systems will be able to overcome. 

Last changed: Jun 28 2013 at 3:17 PM